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This review is taken from PN Review 44, Volume 11 Number 6, July - August 1985.

THIS LONG DISEASE A. O. J. Cockshut, The Art of Autobiography in 19th & 20th Century England (Yale University Press) £10.95

Where the critic is concerned, autobiography challenges the use of methodology. To assess the worth of any particular example involves a blend of objective verification and subjective imaginative response: a number of intellectual and critical disciplines may overlap. As a consequence, to write a book on the art of autobiography calls for a clear recognition of methodological boundaries, and thus for a specific line of approach. Mr Cockshut would seem to be clear enough as to this: he defines the true autobiographers as those 'who answer, though they may not always consciously ask, the question "How did I become what I am?"'. This definition highlights both the potential and the limitation of his method. His interpretation of autobiography as an art is concerned with genre rather than with structure; but the assessment of individual works keeps departing from an objective literary treatment to wander off into moral judgement and social commentary. The result is an interesting but at times a confusing book, one with a good deal of perceptive comment, and lucid in exposition of particular texts, but without any clear overall analysis of its subject.

Certainly this cannot have been an easy task to tackle, especially as the author has cast his net wide. But of the thirty-five autobiographies to be discussed at any length, only eight belong to the nineteenth century; and as Bunyan and Boswell are analysed on the same scale there is an uncertain handling of historical context that, coming from this author, ...


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